Buckle to herald Town triumph
For many years Luton Town’s successes were fuelled by the underdog tag, the spirit of the unfancied. The 1988 League Cup, progress in the top flight, then later in the Championship, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in 2009. Then, all of a sudden the narrative changed. After a painful decline, accelerated by hefty points deductions, the mood swiftly turned on relegation to non-league.
The culture shifted overnight, blanketing Kenilworth Road in pressure and expectation. It has been a heavy burden for the club during their three seasons in the Blue Square Bet Premier. Portrayed, with some justification, as the swaggering top cats, every other side has been determined to shoot them down. As we noted in our pre-season profile, Town’s third successive play-off failure last spring was greeted with Schadenfreude not sympathy.
But there is not the slightest hint of a change in tack from chairman Nick Owen, the former TV presenter who heads the 2020 consortium which runs the club. If anything they have redoubled their efforts and ploughed more money into a title tilt. It was supposed to be their year in 2009/10 and again in 2010/11, and 2011/12, but finally we fancy that the cogs will all fall into place this season.
For the first time since relegation they have a manager with experience of leading a side out of non-league. Paul Buckle is something of an acquired taste but he knows his way around this division better than most after guiding Torquay to play-off success in 2009. His impact on arrival in April – replacing Gary Brabin, who had long run out of ideas – was impressive. He revived the Hatters’ faltering top-five bid with a six-match unbeaten run as his side ended the campaign keeping five successive clean sheets.
It was perhaps something of a surprise that Buckle allowed impressive defender George Pilkington to join rivals Mansfield but he acted quickly to recruit new skipper Ronnie Henry from Stevenage, a player who was central to Boro’s rise up the pyramid. With Garry Richards and Danny Spiller lured from Gillingham to bulk up Town’s spine and prolific non-league strikers Jon Shaw (Gateshead) and Scott Rendell (Wycombe) also joining, Buckle has built a gifted squad.
Of course, it is not the first time Town have boasted a talented group but there is a sense that they now have the right man in charge to orchestrate a concerted title charge. The absence of a big-spending arriviste is important, too. Crawley and Fleetwood muddied the waters with their generous backers, and while Mansfield and Grimsby have bolstered their ranks we’re happy to tip Luton’s weight of experience to eventually shine through.
Elsewhere, though Forest Green are investing heavily in a push for the Football League, and Wrexham remain a potent force (although slightly less so than this time last year), we’re backing Cambridge United to make a dart for the play-off spots.
The U’s finished ninth last term in their first full season under former youth team boss Jez George and while they began well, the manager learned plenty from the New Year slump. A lack of strength in depth cost them then and George has duly boosted his squad with a stream of young players (every member of the current group is 25 or under). Robbie Willmott has returned after 18 months with Luton, while Scott Garner (Grimsby), Tom Elliott (Stockport) and Sam Smith (Lincoln) have also been acquired from divisional rivals.
George has totally transformed the club’s ethos since falling into the top job in February 2011 following Martin Ling’s disastrous reign. Expensive experience has been dispensed with, in favour of promising youth. But despite their tender years, this is not a squad short of know-how. Willmott is just 22 but the winger has already racked up almost 200 professional appearances while Kevin Roberts, Ricky Wellard and James Jennings have all tasted life in the Football League.
Unlike the other fancied sides, United do not possess a striker with a proven track record and that may just hold them back from a charge for top spot but we fancy the ambitious George to have his men in with a shout of success in April.
Though we’re not convinced by Forest Green’s promotion credentials, we are admirers of their 23-year-old forward Reece Styche. The England C man missed a significant chunk of last season through injury but managed eight goals in his 16 appearances having struck 15 times in 2009/10. If he can curb his impetuous side - he also picked up 14 bookings in 2009/10 - Styche has the channelled arrogance to make a real mark this term.
Luton’s Shaw understandably heads the top scorer market but he faces stiff competition for a starting spot at Kenilworth Road, after so many years as the main man at Gateshead and Halifax. Styche looks worthy of an each-way investment at 40/1.
Finally, if you’re looking for a wager in the regional divisions, we reckon Eastbourne Borough are a fair outside bet in the Blue Square Bet South simply on the strength of their management team. Former Salisbury boss Tommy Widdrington has been busy making his mark on the Sports after arriving during last term and in assistant Alan Kimble, previously Liam Daish’s number two at Ebbsfleet, he has a coach with significant non-league experience.
For more on the Blue Square Bet Premier, read our in-depth pre-season profiles of all 24 clubs.
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